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Community gardens, reclaimed streets highlight Vancouver’s urban summer

A woman sleeps as others rest on giant pillows setup on a block of Robson Street closed to traffic between Howe St. and Hornby St. in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday September 6, 2012. The temporary installation titled "Pop Rocks," made from the recycled Canada Place sails and recycled beads, is part of the Viva Vancouver program that aims to reduce the use of cars on select city streets during the summer.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes it's the small changes that make the biggest differences in how people enjoy their cities – the food cart can provide as much pleasure as the expensive new art gallery. Vancouver isn't immune to the experimental trends popping up in this 21st-century urban age. Here are some of the latest:

A small farm with your condo?

As urban agriculture takes off, community gardens are proliferating in Vancouver parks, with waiting lists for more. And the city has an aggressive plan to plant more trees with edible produce in future years. But Vancouver also has small farms operating on top of downtown parking acreages, in empty lots in the Downtown Eastside, on rooftops. And, most recently, the city announced North America's largest urban orchard – at a former gas station. The social enterprise Sole Food Street Farms will have apples, pears, plums and persimmons in its orchard, planted in moveable boxes at Main and Terminal.

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Playing, napping, eating on the street

Street pavement is a valuable resource that can be used for more than just cars, as many cities are discovering. Vancouver has shut down Robson Street between the art gallery and the courthouse two summers in a row. Last summer, it was filled with giant beanbag-like chairs. This summer, it's wooden tables and benches set out on the road, which has been covered with planking to create a "corduroy road" – the way streets were built in the muddy Pacific Northwest 100 years ago. Streets are doing double-duty elsewhere as well: residents are encouraged to shut them down for block parties; laneways occasionally turn into markets; and the city is creating "parklets" (little decks built over a couple of street parking spaces) here and there. In Surrey, one road in the city centre is shut down regularly to provide space for markets and concerts.

Inventive new places to drink

Vancouver was notorious in its earlier years for its grim drinking destinations: large, dimly lit, barn-like establishments filled with terry cloth-covered tables, the better to soak up the gallons of spilled beer. The prevailing ethos implied that drinkers were animals best kept penned up. Very slowly, the city edged toward allowing alcohol on sidewalk terraces (although insisting they must be railed off in a way that mystifies people from other cities). Earlier this month, council approved zoning changes that will allow the city's proliferating micro-breweries to serve their products in small bars and tasting lounges attached to their operations. Again, not just a Vancouver thing. Surrey will not only allow Central City Brewing, its biggest micro-brewery, to open a tasting lounge at a new facility near the Pattullo Bridge, it actually built the facility and leased it to Central City long-term.

Parties, parties, parties

European cities know that to keep the citizens happy, there must be circuses, not just bread. Go into any city with any pretensions to urbanity during the summer months and you'll find a steady diet of free music performances in the parks and churches, along with festivals in the public squares. Surrey, under Mayor Dianne Watts's ambitious plan to turn it from a suburb into a city, puts on massive free concerts in public parks. The annual Fusion Festival July 20 and 21 features the typical eclectic mix of artists in this wildly multicultural suburb: Delhi to Dublin, Hawksley Workman, Los Lobos and much, much more. In Vancouver, streets are shut down for the annual VIVA program and Granville Street – ground zero for hockey riots and beer-drinking – is being slowly transformed into the main location for festivals, markets, dance parties, and street hockey. Now there's something you'll never see at a Paris summer festival.

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